Italy will leave Yerevan with 3 points on the the road after defeating Armenia 3-1 at the Hrazdan Stadium. A courageous performance by the home side saw the minnows mount a serious challenge against the Azzurri, but the Italians' experience and overall quality allowed them to prevail in the end.
Italy started brightly, with a sustain spell of attacking play in the opening exchanges. On 5 minutes, Andrea Pirlo received the first solid chance of the match, curling in a trademark free-kick from just outside the box, but veteran Armenia keeper Roman Berezovski made a fantastic flying save to deny the bearded regista.
Soon after, Riccardo Montolivo found himself clear on the right side of the penalty area, but his low cross was weighted slightly too heavily and eluded the outstretched foot of Claudio Marchisio.
Italy were constantly threatening the Armenia goal, and were able to find the breakthrough strike with only 11 minutes gone on the clock. Domenico Criscito burst down the left flank and pulled back for Montolivo, whose second attempt at playing the ball across the face of goal was handled by Hyayr Mkoyan in the area for a penalty. The unflappable Pirlo stepped up to take the spot-kick, coolly dispatching his attempt by sending Berezovski the wrong way.
Armenia gave Italy a scare on 23 minutes, when an unnecessarily conceded corner by Leonardo Bonucci forced Daniele De Rossi to clear a bounding ball loose in front of goal.
At the other end, Bonucci had penalty appeals waved away as the Juventus defender appeared to be dragged down as a Pirlo free-kick curled in from the right.
The ensuing Armenia move saw the unfancied Caucasians draw level in controversial circumstances. Christian Maggio attempted to clear in the defensive third with his head, but was met with a crunching cranial challenge from Davit Manoyan. The referee raised his whistle to blow, but instead allowed play to continue. Shakhtar Donetsk starlet Henrikh Mkhitaryan picked up the loose ball, blew past Andrea Barzagli, and slotted a well placed finish past Gianluigi Buffon to send the Hrazdan Stadium into raptures.
On 32 minutes, controversy again abounded as Mkoyan handled once more, this time on the edge of the box, but was not given a second yellow card by the referee. The resulting free-kick was curled weekly into Berezovski's arms by Sebastian Giovinco.
Just before halftime, Montolivo found himself through on goal in a promising position from a wonderful Pirlo pass, but the Milan midfielder scuffed his finished and dragged the shot wide.
After the restart, the Armenians came out on the front foot, with Italy requiring an excellent sliding tackle from Criscito to prevent an Artur Edigaryan effort from testing Buffon. The resulting Azzurri counterattack saw Giovinco use some neat footwork to beat the defense and face down Berezovski, only for the diminutive striker to blast his finish over the bar from only 6 yards.
Minutes later Mkoyan was remarkably the object of Italian protest again when the central defender touched a Pirlo ball in the box with a closed fist, but play was waved on.
In the 56th minute, Buffon made a heroic save on a venomous Manoyan volley from Mkhitaryan's cross to keep the Italians on terms, as the Armenian fans willed their squad on in search of an historic victory.
However, it was not to be for the inspired home side, as Daniele De Rossi broke hearts in Yerevan on 64 minutes. Andrea Pirlo whipped in an inch-perfect cross to the Rome native from the right channel, and the all-action midfielder made no mistake in crashing a lunging header off of the crossbar to restore the Italian lead.
Substitute Stephan El Sharaawy nearly bagged his first full international goal 10 minutes later with seemingly only the keeper to beat, but a desperate sliding challenge saw the ball loop into the air for Berezonvski to easily tip over the bar.
Armenia came agonizingly close to equalizing as the match began to wind down, with Bonucci giving the ball away in the box to Mkhitaryan, but the pacy midfielder's pull back was knocked away by a crucial sliding tackle from Maggio.
After maintaining concerted pressure for a number of minutes, Italy finally killed off the match in the 81st minute. A curling De Rossi free-kick from the left flank found Roma teammate Pablo Daniel Osvaldo in the centre of the box, and the ponytailed Argentine-Italian flicked a perfect glancing header past the rooted keeper to claim Italy's third of the day.
The final minutes saw little materialize for either side, as Italy held on for the 3 points on the road whilst Armenia fans dejectedly abandoned their seats having been cheering wildly only a half hour prior.
Tactics and Such
Italy's victory was by no means comfortable. Having never played before, the Azzurri had little scouting to predicate a game-plan on, and the lack of knowledge surrounding Armenia's skill set was prevalent after the minnows began to grow into the match following the 20 minute mark. Cesare Prandelli clearly believed that counterpart Vardan Minasyan would allow the Italians to control possession in midfield and prefer to only attack on the counter, as the former Fiorentina manager established a high defensive line, and urged his midfielders to push deep into the offensive third. This lack of cover at the back allowed the pacy Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Aras Ozbiliz to run directly at Barzagli and Bonucci with little midfield support; Prandelli did not anticipate this lack of support to be an issue as, on a better day, Italy would have retained the ball with more care and been more accurate and decisive in passing. However, a wealth of lazy turnovers to the Armenians forced Marchisio and De Rossi to continue to have to sprint the length of the field back to the defensive third to prevent unmarked opponents from making overlapping runs into Gianluigi Buffon's penalty area.
Despite the Armenian threat on the counter attack, Italy did create chances, however, but failed to take advantage of many of them. Pirlo threatened regularly over the top as Montolivo's service from the trequartista role was sub-par, but the lack of the two Antonios, Di Natale and Cassano, left Italy without a killer finisher in front of goal. It is well known that Osvaldo prefers to receive balls played on the ground to his feet or from the channels to use his head, but with Montolivo seeming to lack the confidence to play the incisive ball whilst Maggio and Criscito were required to hang back for defensive cover, the Roma man received no such service until his goal late on in the day from De Rossi's free-kick. Giovinco continued a string of disappointing performances for La Nazionale, appearing unwilling to run at defenders and stretch attacking play out wide. When the Atomic Ant did get in front of goal, his instincts as a midfielder-by-trade seemed to take over, as he was deferent and looked to play another pass rather than bury a presented chance. The loss of Mario Balotelli to the flu ultimately did not prove decisive, but the powerful Manchester City man undoubtedly would have left an impact on a match where Italy unquestionably suffered without his prolific presence.
Despite not turning in a great showing, Italy were able to snatch a win in Yerevan due to the gulf in experience between the two sides. Whilst the Armenians appeared brighter and were playing with inspiration for a famous victory with the scoreline sitting at 1-1, the lack of a veteran leader in the outfield and ill spent energy eventually proved their undoing. With 7 players on the pitch under the age of 25, including captain Mkhitaryan, the home side was unable to reign in wild spells of play and became content with only going for a winning goal, rather than balancing this marauding spirit with concerted defending. This lack of experience, coupled with Italy's wealth of it as De Rossi displayed with his wily winner in the 64th minute, allowed Prandelli's side to gain the upper hand and leave with a win despite appearing out of sorts and under pressure after conceding an equalizer to an unknown minnow. The Azzurri will have to be better against Denmark on Tuesday if they hope to maintain their winning ways and continue to cultivate an unassailable lead at the top of Group B, but the ability to claim the 3 points in a hostile environment on an off-day is a promising sign, and the hallmark of a quality, well-coached side.
Man of the Match: Daniele De Rossi, Italy (1 goal; 1 assist)
Most Missed Player: Giorgio Chiellini, Italy
Post-Match Result: Italy are now 2 points clear of Bulgaria at the top of Group B on 7 points
Stat of the Match: Italy have not lost a World Cup qualifying match since October of 2004